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December 26, 2014

INTO THE WOODS Goes into the Nation’s Cinemas

Many friends have complained to me at the lack of lighting in the film version of Into the Woods.

“It’s so DARK,” they say.

Well, yeah – but it has to be. Screenwriter James Lapine has kept to his Broadway libretto in which most everything beautiful – and ugly – happens at night.

The bewitching hour of midnight is often mentioned, be it by Lapine or by Sondheim. Barring a change that would instead make every one of Witch’s deadlines high noon (which might not have been such a bad idea), the film is as dark as the 1987 Broadway production. Do people not remember how purposely murky Richard Nelson’s lighting was?

Director Rob Marshall has sunlight pour through whenever he can. What he’s also done is deliver the best possible film of INTO THE WOODS.

Marshall has seen to it that Little Red Ridinghood’s “I Know Things Now” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky” aren’t simply told to a fourth-wall audience but to characters. Witch – the only mother in a Sondheim musical worse than Rose Hovick -- winds up holding the baby when everyone else is accusing each other that it’s “Your Fault.”

The director has also added some delicious little touches with his actors. Even as Little Red Ridinghood (the secure Lilla Crawford) is stealing the bakery blind, Baker’s Wife (the grounded Emily Blunt) smiles affectionately. Yes, a woman who desperately wants a child often thinks that any kid is automatically adorable.

“It Takes Two” has husband and wife on opposite sides of the long strand of hair as yellow as corn. They engage in a mock-tug-of-war, then put hand-over-hand until they meet in the middle and give an affectionate kiss. Later, Blunt shows amusing umbrage when Cinderella’s Prince (the sturdy Chris Pine) labels her “a peasant.”

Tracey Ullman, as Jack’s mother, is tenderly instructive when telling her son that only female cows can give milk. Jack is nicely played by Daniel Huttlestone, who was 14 when he made the film but looks younger. Thus we wonder if a mother would entrust so callow a youth with the responsibility of selling a cow. I don’t know how young or old Ben Wright was when he originated Jack (and you try finding out his age, which seems to be as guarded a secret as the formula for Coca-Cola), but he appeared older and more capable of negotiating a sale.

One of the most delightful – and more logical – details comes when Jack offers Baker (the endearing James Corden) the five gold pieces. In the stage play, they were standard-issue coins of the realm. But remember: up there is Giants Country, so someone on the film was smart enough to realize that gold pieces in that world would be the size of manhole covers.

The movie is certainly cinematic. It gives Baker’s Wife the quickest conception-to-last-stage of-pregnancy ever seen on film. During “Agony,” Rapunzel’s Prince grabs a grapevine and swings on it to illustrate the way he climbs up Rapunzel’s hair. Witch (the as-usual extraordinary Meryl Streep) dramatically enters after her unseen move tears the Baker’s door off its hinges. Her story about Baker’s Father is not just told, but effectively shown in flashback. What is arguably the most bizarre flashback in any movie musical has us follow Little Red into Wolf’s belly and see her making a tender reacquaintance with her Granny.

How ironic that in the stage show, Wolf had a realistic and hairy costume from ears to foot paws, while in the more realistic medium of film he’s dressed in a more theatrical and not-literal way, more like your average street-corner criminal. And although film has always has an easier time purveying magic than does the stage, Cinderella’s change from rags to nouveau-riches isn’t as dazzling as it is in the current Broadway musical bearing her name.

There’s new dialogue. Witch now says an expression we associate more with another Woods – Elle. Some additions don’t work: Cinderella’s Prince already has one shoe in his possession when he finds that Baker’s Wife has the other, and yet he doesn’t take it. His claim “We only need one” seems wrong; wouldn’t he seize the opportunity to have it, knowing that to really find the right owner it takes two?

Some dialogue has been cut. Perhaps because some kids will be expected at a Disney film, Baker’s Wife’s statement “I have no children” and Jack’s Mother’s rejoinder “That’s okay, too” have been dropped.

The biggest change involves Narrator. While he provides some voiceovers, he’s never seen and isn’t part of the plot – meaning no Mysterious Man and no Father alter-ego. Baker’s Father (the cameoed Simon Russell Beale) and his relationship with his son is slightly different here, but there’s enough unpleasant history to result in tension. This happens after Witch has put a pungent thought into Baker’s head: “Your father was no father – so why should you be?” Corden thus shows occasional anguish at the thought of raising a child.

Baker’s Wife’s death is more subtle here while Witch’s is less ambiguous than it was in the original production. There she reappeared to sing “Children Will Listen,” so one could effectively argue that her disappearance after “Last Midnight” didn’t mean she was gone for good. Her showing up for the final song didn’t have to be taken literally. Nevertheless, in the film Marshall and Lapine leave no doubt that Witch is not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.

Dion Beebe’s camerawork is excellent, save for a terrible miscue when Little Red Ridinghood enters Granny’s house. Time and the camera slow to a virtual standstill when Cinderella sings “On the Steps of the Palace.” If there’s any doubt that she’s fantasizing while ruminating, she lolls on the stairs and puts her head lolls “in the goo” and then gets back up completely unstained.

Beebe takes his time in totally revealing Giant Wife’s face, teasing us with quick and incomplete glimpses. When the beanstalk is shown in the distance, it rather resembles the tornado that set Dorothy Gale (spoiler alert!) into a dreamlike reverie. What he should have shown us, however, is Rapunzel’s reaction after Witch severed her hair.

He does show us what Rapunzel’s Prince thinks of her new hair-do. Lapine then adds a scene in which Witch takes out even greater wrath on him, but Rapunzel is able to provide an antidote.

It’s pretty well sung, too, although Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella has a tough time singing “No One Is Alone” in the key assigned her. Streep, however, is especially powerful in the B-section of “Stay with Me.” There’s a marvelous Sondheimian in-joke that involves music but no lyrics. At the end, “Children Will Listen” is indeed followed by a reprise of the title song but simply sung over the credits that are seen for the first time.

Musically, we’ve lost “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” “Maybe They’re Magic,” “First Midnight,” “Ever After,” “Act Two Prologue,” “So Happy,” “Agony” (Reprise) and “No More.” Easy to see why “Ever After” was dropped; had it stayed, it might have felt like the end of the film. And Marshall does engineer a solid segue from joy to solemnity.

But losing the original Act One Finale doesn’t mean that Marshall couldn’t have given us Act Two Prologue. It bookended nicely the Act One Opening in which everyone expressed “I wish!” -- but now that many wishes had come true, we lose the characters’ wishing for more. (Most missed is the update of Baker’s Wife’s “I wish we might have a child” which becomes “I wish we had more room.”)

Ditto the loss of the reprise of “Agony.” Given that we’d heard Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) expressing the grandeur of newfound love, Marshall and Lapine should have retained the reprise where we see these royals haven’t settled for “settling down” but are bored and looking for new women.

“Agony” got applause. Some may say, “Yeah, because Chris Pine is in it.” I suspect it’s because Marshall treated it in purposely over-exaggerated mock-heroic fashion – and because it’s filmed in sunny, comedy-friendly daylight. For all the talk of Pine’s sexiest-man status, I’d say he often resembles Ted Baxter, that one-time anchorman on WJM-TV.

No other moment got applause, which brings up an interesting point. I’ve been to plenty of films where the audience starts boisterously clapping when the villain is finally exterminated. So why doesn’t it happen here when Giant’s Wife falls?

Perhaps the audience doesn’t want to endorse the killing because it knows it really isn’t a fair solution to the problem. After all, if Jack hadn’t started stealing from The Giant, everyone would have lived in peaceful coexistence. Indeed, the Giants clearly are adults who have for decades been minding their own business. But Jack’s breaking-and-entering-AND-stealing started the trouble and initiated the eventual death of Giant. Yes, Giant’s Wife is technically in the wrong in wanting revenge, which is never the right way to proceed; like so many who seek retribution, she winds up the victim. Still, INTO THE WOODS seems to be the one musical that wants to say that two wrongs make a right.

We’ll soon see if Disney executives will be singing “It’s a hit! It’s a hit! It’s a palpable hit!” The trailers have obfuscated that this is a musical, offering only 46 seconds of sung lyrics in a 2:41 preview. And of all the films made from Broadway musicals, I’d say only CARMEN JONES and PORGY AND BESS – veritable operas -- have contained more sung music.

The irony is that long delay in bringing INTO THE WOODS to the screen might be a blessing in disguise. In the quarter-century since the original production closed, amateur productions have proliferated. Right now, Music Theatre International, which licenses the show, reports that 245 organizations will do INTO THE WOODS between now and June 2016, while 236 troupes (including one at Barbara Bush Middle School in San Antonio) will present the hour-long INTO THE WOODS, JR. (which simply leaves everyone “happy ever after” by doing only Act One) between now and August, 2015.

Think how many people have appeared in productions in the last 25 years. Sondheim’s music historically hasn’t been an easy sell, but INTO THE WOODS has given him quite the built-in audience. Time will tell, of course, but there’s reason to be optimistic that the movie will be a financial success.

Good as the film is, Marshall still hasn’t answered a question I’ve had for some time. If Witch can levitate – as she did in the original production during her opening-number rap sequence and as she does often in the film -- why does she need to climb Rapunzel’s hair to get into the castle?

         — Peter Filichia



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